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Abstract

The term “learning styles” refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals' learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly. Assessments of learning style typically ask people to evaluate what sort of information presentation they prefer (e.g., words versus pictures versus speech) and/or what kind of mental activity they find most engaging or congenial (e.g., analysis versus listening), although assessment instruments are extremely diverse. The most common—but not the only—hypothesis about the instructional relevance of learning styles is the meshing hypothesis, according to which instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preferences of the learner (e.g., for a “visual learner,” emphasizing visual presentation of information). The learning-styles view has acquired great influence within the education field, and is frequently encountered at levels ranging from kindergarten to graduate school. There is a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks for teachers, and many organizations offer professional development workshops for teachers and educators built around the concept of learning styles. The authors of the present review were charged with determining whether these practices are supported by scientific evidence. We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria. First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style. Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.
Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence
Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork
Introduction106
An Overview of Learning Styles: Doctrines and Industry106
How Did the Learning-Styles Approach Become So Widespread and Appealing?107
Origin and Popularity
Interactions of Individual Differences and Instructional Methods
What Evidence Is Necessary to Validate Interventions Based on Learning Styles?108
Existence of Study Preferences
The Learning-Styles Hypothesis
Interactions as the Key Test of the Learning-Styles Hypothesis
Primary Mental Abilities: Relation to Learning Styles
Evaluation of Learning-Styles Literature111
Style-by-Treatment Interactions: The Core Evidence Is Missing
Learning-Styles Studies With Appropriate Methods and Negative Results
Related Literatures With Appropriate Methodologies113
Aptitude-by-Treatment Interactions
Personality-by-Treatment Interactions
Conclusions and Recommendations116
Points of Clarification
Costs and Benefits of Educational Interventions
Beliefs Versus Evidence as a Foundation for Educational Practices and Policies
Everybody’s Potential to Learn
Psychological
Science
in the
PUBLIC
INTEREST
CONTENTS Volume 9 Number 3 December 2008
A JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE
About the Authors
Harold Pashler is Professor of Psychology and a faculty member of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of
California, San Diego. His main areas of interest are human learning and the psychology of attention. Pashler’s learning
research focuses on methods for optimizing acquisition and retention of knowledge and skills. In the field of attention,
Pashler’s work has illuminated basic attentional bottlenecks as well as the nature of visual awareness. Pashler is the author
of ThePsychologyofAttention (MIT Press, 1998) and the editor of Stevens’HandbookofExperimentalPsychology (Wiley,
2001). He received the Troland Prize from the National Academy of Sciences for his studies of human attention, and was
elected to membership in the Society of Experimental Psychologists.
Mark McDaniel is Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, with a joint appointment in Education.
He received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 1980. His research is in the general area of human learning and
memory, with an emphasis on prospective memory, encoding and retrieval processes in episodic memory, learning of
complex concepts, and applications to educational contexts and to aging. His educationally relevant research includes
work being conducted in actual college and middle-school classrooms. This research is being sponsored by the Institute of
Educational Sciences and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and his work is also supported by the National Institutes of
Health. McDaniel has served as Associate Editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and
Cognition and Cognitive Psychology and as President of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association, and he is a
fellow of Divisions 3 and 20 of the American Psychological Association. He has published over 200 journal articles, book
chapters, and edited books on human learning and memory, and is the coauthor, with Gilles Einstein, of two recent books:
Memory Fitness: AGuidefor Successful Aging (Yale University Press, 2004) and Prospective Memory: An Overview and
SynthesisofanEmergingField (Sage, 2007).
Doug Rohrer is Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. He received his doctoral degree in Psychology
from the University of California, San Diego, and he was a faculty member at George WashingtonUniversity before moving to
the University of South Florida. Before attending graduate school, he taught high-school mathematics for several years.
Most of his research concerns learning and memory, with a recent emphasis on learning strategies.
Robert A. Bjork is Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His
research focuses on human learning and memory and on the implications of the science of learning for instruction and
training. He has served as Editor of Memory &Cognition and Psychological Review (1995–2000), Coeditor of Psycholo-
gicalScience inthePublicInterest (1998–2004), and Chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Techniques
for the Enhancement of Human Performance. He is a past president or chair of the Association for Psychological Science
(APS), the Western Psychological Association, the Psychonomic Society, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the
Council of Editors of the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Council of Graduate Departments of
Psychology. He is a recipient of UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the American Psychological Association’s
Distinguished Scientist Lecturer and Distinguished Service to Psychological Science Awards, and the American
Physiological Society’s Claude Bernard Distinguished Lecturership Award.
Learning Styles
Concepts and Evidence
Harold Pashler,
1
Mark McDaniel,
2
Doug Rohrer,
3
and Robert Bjork
4
1
University of California, San Diego,
2
Washington University in St. Louis,
3
University of South Florida, and
4
University of
California, Los Angeles
SUMMARY—The term ‘‘learning styles’’ refers to the concept
that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruc-
tion or study is most effective for them. Proponents of
learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction
requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tai-
loring instruction accordingly. Assessments of learning
style typically ask people to evaluate what sort of infor-
mation presentation they prefer (e.g., words versus pic-
tures versus speech) and/or what kind of mental activity
they find most engaging or congenial (e.g., analysis versus
listening), although assessment instruments are extremely
diverse. The most common—but not the only—hypothesis
about the instructional relevance of learning styles is the
meshing hypothesis, according to which instruction is best
provided in a format that matches the preferences of the
learner (e.g., for a ‘‘visual learner,’’ emphasizing visual
presentation of information).
The learning-styles view has acquired great influence
within the education field, and is frequently encountered
at levels ranging from kindergarten to graduate school.
There is a thriving industry devoted to publishing learn-
ing-styles tests and guidebooks for teachers, and many
organizations offer professional development workshops
for teachers and educators built around the concept of
learning styles.
The authors of the present review were charged with
determining whether these practices are supported by
scientific evidence. We concluded that any credible vali-
dation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust
documentation of a very particular type of experimental
finding with several necessary criteria. First, students
must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning
styles, and then students from each group must be ran-
domly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional
methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is
the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate
that optimal learning requires that students receive in-
struction tailored to their putative learning style, the
experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction be-
tween learning style and instructional method: Students
with one learning style achieve the best educational
outcome when given an instructional method that differs
from the instructional method producing the best out-
come for students with a different learning style. In
other words, the instructional method that proves most
effective for students with one learning style is not the most
effective method for students with a different learning
style.
Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence
that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences
about how they prefer information to be presented to them.
There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ
in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti-
tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing
different types of information. However, we found virtu-
ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned
above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali-
dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al-
though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very
few studies have even used an experimental methodology
capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to
education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate
method, several found results that flatly contradict the
popular meshing hypothesis.
We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no ad-
equate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-
styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus,
limited education resources would better be devoted to
adopting other educational practices that have a strong
evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.
However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies
of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all
possible versions of learning styles have been tested and
found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.
Address correspondence to Harold Pashler, Department of Psychol-
ogy 0109, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093;
e-mail: hpashler@ucsd.edu.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Volume 9—Number 3 105Copyright r2009 Association for Psychological Science
Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment
in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such
research needs to be performed appropriately.
INTRODUCTION
The term learning styles refers to the view that different people
learn information in different ways. In recent decades, the
concept of learning styles has steadily gained influence. In this
article, we describe the intense interest and discussion that the
concept of learning styles has elicited among professional ed-
ucators at all levels of the educational system. Moreover, the
learning-styles concept appears to have wide acceptance not
only among educators but also among parents and the general
public. This acceptance is perhaps not surprising because the
learning-styles idea is actively promoted by vendors offering
many different tests, assessment devices, and online technolo-
gies to help educators identify their students’ learning styles and
adapt their instructional approaches accordingly (examples are
cited later).
We are cognitive psychologists with an interest both in the
basic science of learning and memory and in the ways that
science can be developed to be more helpful to teachers and
students. We were commissioned by Psychological Science in the
Public Interest to assess, as dispassionately as we could, the
scientific evidence underlying practical application of learning-
style assessment in school contexts. This task involved two
steps: (a) analyzing the concept of learning styles to determine
what forms of evidence would be needed to justify basing ped-
agogical choices on assessments of students’ learning styles and
(b) reviewing the literature to see whether this evidence exists.
Our team began this undertaking with differing—but not pas-
sionately held—opinions on learning styles as well as a shared
desire to let the empirical evidence lead us where it would.
We start by offering the reader a brief overview of the learning-
styles concept, including some of the publications and entre-
preneurial ventures that have been developed around the idea.
Next, we analyze the learning-styles concept from a more ab-
stract point of view. Here, we grapple with some potentially
confusing issues of definition and logic that in our opinion re-
quire more careful consideration in connection with learning
styles than they have so far received. We argue that this analysis
is a useful, and essential, prerequisite to organizing and ap-
praising the evidence on learning styles. Finally, we describe the
results of our search of published literature, draw some con-
clusions, and suggest lines of future research. We should em-
phasize, however, that the present article is not a review of the
literature of learning styles; indeed, several such reviews have
appeared recently (e.g., Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone,
2004; Kozhevnikov, 2007; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Zhang,
2008). In brief, we sought to determine what kinds of findings
would provide sufficient evidence for the learning-styles con-
cept, as detailed in the following sections, and then we searched
for evidence that satisfied this minimal criterion.
AN OVERVIEW OF LEARNING STYLES: DOCTRINES
AND INDUSTRY
As described earlier, the concept of learning styles encompasses
not only a large body of written materials but also what seems to
be a thriving set of commercial activities. The writings that touch
on the learning-styles concept in its broadest sense include
several thousand articles and dozens of books. These figures may
seem surprisingly large, but one should keep in mind the sheer
number of different schemes or models of learning styles that
have been proposed over the years. For example, in a relatively
comprehensive review, Coffield et al. (2004) described 71
different schemes, and they did not claim that their list was
exhaustive.
The commercial activity related to learning styles is largely
centered around the publishing and selling of measurement
devices to help teachers assess individual learning styles; typ-
ically, although not always, these devices classify the learner
into different style categories. Testing has been recommended
by organizations at all levels of education that might be pre-
sumed to base their recommendations on evidence. For exam-
ple, the National Association of Secondary School principles
commissioned the construction of a learning-styles test that it
distributed widely (Keefe, 1988). Similarly, the Yale Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences (2009) currently maintains a Web
site that offers advice for Yale instructors; the site informs vis-
itors that ‘‘college students enter our classrooms with a wide
variety of learning styles.’’ The site goes on to recommend that
instructors determine their own ‘‘modality of learning’’ as well as
assess their students’ learning styles and make their instruc-
tional choices accordingly.
Furthermore, the learning-styles concept is embraced in a
number of current educational psychology textbooks. For in-
stance, Omrod (2008) wrote, ‘‘Some cognitive styles and dis-
positions do seem to influence how and what students learn. . . .
Some students seem to learn better when information is pre-
sented through words (verbal learners), whereas others seem to
learn better when it’s presented through pictures (visual learn-
ers)’’ (p. 160, italics in original). Thus, educational psychology
students and aspiring teachers are being taught that students
have particular learning styles and that these styles should be
accommodated by instruction tailored to those learning styles.
Some of the most popular learning-style schemes include the
Dunn and Dunn learning-styles model (e.g., Dunn, 1990), Kolb’s
(1984, 1985) Learning Styles Inventory, and Honey and Mum-
ford’s (1992) Learning Styles Questionnaire. The assessment
devices that have been developed in relation to the model
of Dunn and Dunn are particularly popular and extensive.
106 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
Customers visiting the Web site of the International Learning
Styles Network (www.learningstyles.net) are advised that
Learning style is the way in which each learner begins to con-
centrate on, process, absorb, and retain new and difficult infor-
mation (Dunn and Dunn, 1992; 1993; 1999). The interaction of
these elements occurs differently in everyone. Therefore, it is
necessary to determine what is most likely to trigger each student’s
concentration, how to maintain it, and how to respond to his or her
natural processing style to produce long term memory and reten-
tion. To reveal these natural tendencies and styles, it is important to
use a comprehensive model of learning style that identifies each
individual’s strengths and preferences across the full spectrum of
physiological, sociological, psychological, emotional, and envi-
ronmental elements.(International Learning Styles Network, 2008)
As of June 2008, the company sells five different assessment
tools for different age groups—ranging from the Observational
Primary Assessment of Learning Style (OPAL) for ages 3 to 6 to
Building Excellence (BE) for ages 17 and older (at a cost of
approximately $5.00 per student for the classification instru-
ment). The vendor claims these assessments ‘‘measure the pat-
terns through which learning occurs in individual students; they
summarize the environmental, emotional, sociological, physio-
logical, and global/analytic processing preferences that a stu-
dent has for learning’’ (International Learning Styles Network,
2008). A summer certification program is also offered in con-
nection with this approach (the basic certification program costs
$1,225 per trainee, excluding meals and lodging, with a higher
level certification for conducting research on learning styles also
offered for an additional $1,000). The Dunn and Dunn assess-
ment instrument for adults asks respondents to indicate, for
example, whether they learn best when they hear a person talk
about something, whether their desk is typically disorganized
and messy, whether they would say that they normally think in
words as opposed to mental images, and whether they would
characterize themselves as someone who thinks intuitively or
objectively (Rundle & Dunn, 2007).
Kolb’s (1984, 1985) Learning Styles Inventory is another very
popular scheme, particularly within the United States. It con-
ceives of individuals’ learning processes as differing along two
dimensions: preferred mode of perception (concrete to abstract)
and preferred mode of processing (active experimentation to
reflective observations). The Learning Styles Inventory classi-
fies individuals into four types on the basis of their position along
these two dimensions: divergers (concrete, reflective), assimi-
lators (abstract, reflective), convergers (abstract, active), and
accommodators (concrete, active). The self-assessment requires
people to agree or disagree (on a 4-point scale) with, for ex-
ample, the idea that they learn best when they listen and watch
carefully, or that when they learn they like to analyze things and
to break them down into parts.
The Learning Styles Inventory is distributed by the Hay Group
(http://www.haygroup.com) and sold in packs of 10 booklets for
approximately $100.00 (as of June 2008). The Hay Group also
distributes an informational booklet called ‘‘One Style Doesn’t
Fit All: The Different Ways People Learn and Why It Matters’’
(Hay Group, n.d.). According to the booklet, the practical ben-
efits of classifying individuals’ learning styles include ‘‘placing
them in learning and work situations with people whose learning
strengths are different from their own,’’ ‘‘improving the fit be-
tween their learning style and the kind of learning experience
they face,’’ and ‘‘practicing skills in areas that are the opposite of
their present strengths’’ (Hay Group, n.d., p. 11).
These three examples are merely some of the more popular
and well-advertised products within the learning-styles move-
ment. Readers interested in a more comprehensive view should
consult Coffield et al. (2004).
HOW DID THE LEARNING-STYLES APPROACH
BECOME SO WIDESPREAD AND APPEALING?
Origin and Popularity
The popularity and prevalence of the learning-styles approach
may, of course, be a product of its success in fostering learning
and instruction. Assessing the extent to which there is evidence
that the approach does indeed foster learning is the primary goal
of this review. However, there are reasons to suspect that other
factors—in addition to, or instead of, actual effectiveness—may
play a role in the popularity of the learning-styles approach.
Most learning-styles taxonomies are ‘‘type’’ theories: That is,
they classify people into supposedly distinct groups, rather than
assigning people graded scores on different dimensions. One
can trace the lineage of these theories back to the first modern
typological theorizing in the personality field, which was un-
dertaken by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst C.G. Jung
(1964). Jung’s ideas were explicitly incorporated into a psy-
chological test developed in the United States, the Myers–Briggs
Type Indicator test. This test became very popular starting in the
1940s and remains widely used to this day. The Myers–Briggs
categorizes people into a number of groups, providing infor-
mation that is said to be helpful in making occupational deci-
sions. The assumption that people actually cluster into distinct
groups as measured by this test has received little support from
objective studies (e.g., Druckman & Porter, 1991; Stricker &
Ross, 1964), but this lack of support has done nothing to dampen
its popularity. It seems that the idea of finding out ‘‘what type of
person one is’’ has some eternal and deep appeal, and the suc-
cess of the Myers–Briggs test promoted the development of type-
based learning-style assessments.
Another, very understandable, part of the appeal of the
learning-styles idea may reflect the fact that people are con-
cerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by
educators as unique individuals. It is also natural and appealing
to think that all people have the potential to learn effectively and
easily if only instruction is tailored to their individual learning
styles. Another related factor that may play a role in the popu-
Volume 9—Number 3 107
H. Pashler et al.
larity of the learning-styles approach has to do with responsi-
bility. If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or ex-
celling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to
think that the educational system, not the person or the child
himself or herself, is responsible. That is, rather than attribute
one’s lack of success to any lack of ability or effort on one’s part,
it may be more appealing to think that the fault lies with in-
struction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style. In
that respect, there may be linkages to the self-esteem movement
that became so influential, internationally, starting in the 1970s
(Twenge, 2006).
Interactions of Individual Differences and
Instructional Methods
As we argue in the next section, credible evidence in support of
practices based on learning styles needs to document a specific
type of interaction between instructional method and assess-
ments of an individual’s learning style. Basically, evidence for a
learning-styles intervention needs to consist of finding that a
given student’s learning is enhanced by instruction that is tai-
lored in some way to that student’s learning style.
Naturally, it is undeniable that the optimal instructional
method will often differ between individuals in some respects. In
particular, differences in educational backgrounds can be a
critical consideration in the optimization of instruction. New
learning builds on old learning, for example, so an individual
student’s prior knowledge is bound to determine what level and
type of instructional activities are optimal for that student. Many
research studies (see, e.g., McNamara, Kintsch, Butler-Songer,
& Kintsch, 1996) have demonstrated that the conditions of in-
struction that are optimal differ depending on students’ prior
knowledge. Later in this review, we summarize some of the ev-
idence suggesting that aptitude measures can help predict what
instructional methods are most effective.
WHAT EVIDENCE IS NECESSARY TO VALIDATE
INTERVENTIONS BASED ON LEARNING STYLES?
We turn now to the core of the learning-styles idea: an assess-
ment of the degree to which it has been validated.
Existence of Study Preferences
In reviewing the literature on learning styles and examining the
different ways in which this term is frequently used, we make a
basic distinction between what we call the existence of study
preferences and what we call the learning-styles hypothesis. The
existence of preferences, as we interpret it, amounts simply to
the fact that people will, if asked, volunteer preferences about
their preferred mode of taking in new information and studying.
Given that learning-style questionnaires focusing on prefer-
ences have at least some psychometric reliability (i.e., a person’s
score on one day predicts their score on another day; e.g.,
Henson & Hwang, 2002; Veres, Sims, & Shake, 1987), the ex-
istence of preferences with some coherence and stability is not
in dispute. A study by Massa and Mayer (2006), which is dis-
cussed in more detail later, provides further evidence on this
point. Massa and Mayer developed three instruments to assess
people’s preferences for receiving instruction verbally versus
accompanied by pictorial illustrations. Responses on these in-
struments were significantly correlated with the degree to which
college students chose to receive verbal elaboration versus
pictorial elaboration of technical terms in an electronics lesson.
Massa and Mayer also found significant correlations between the
instruments they used to assess people’s preference for certain
kinds of representations and the mode of elaboration people
elected to receive in the electronics lesson. (As discussed at
more length later, however, the preference for visual versus
verbal information intake had little, if any, relationship to an
individual’s objectively measured specific-aptitude profile.)
Having noted the reality of these preferences, we emphasize
that the implications of such preferences for educational prac-
tices and policies are minimal. The existenceof preferences says
nothing about what these preferences might mean or imply for
anything else, much less whether it is sensible for educators to
take account of these preferences. Most critically, the reality of
these preferences does not demonstrate that assessing a student’s
learning style would be helpful in providing effective instruction
for that student. That is, a particular student’s having a particular
preference does not, by itself, imply that optimal instruction for
the student would need to take this preference into account. In
brief, the existence of study preferences would not by itself
suggest that buying and administering learning-styles tests
would be a sensible use of educators’ limited time and money.
The Learning-Styles Hypothesis
What, then, is the version of the learning-styles hypothesis that
has practical implications for educational contexts? It is the
claim that learning will be ineffective, or at least less efficient
than it could be, if learners receive instruction that does not take
account of their learning style, or conversely, it is the claim that
individualizing instruction to the learner’s style can allow peo-
ple to achieve a better learning outcome.
It is important to note that there is a specific version of the
learning-styles hypothesis that evidently looms largest both
within the educational literature and within the minds of most
people writing about learning styles: the idea that instruction
should be provided in the mode that matches the learner’s style.
For example, if the learner is a ‘‘visual learner,’’ information
should, when possible, be presented visually. We refer to this
specific instance of the learning-styles hypothesis as the mesh-
ing hypothesis—the claim that presentation should mesh with
the learner’s own proclivities.
Most proponents of the learning-styles idea subscribe to some
form of the meshing hypothesis, and most accounts of how in-
108 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
struction should be optimized assume the meshing hypothesis:
For example, they speak of (a) tailoring teaching to ‘‘the way in
which each learner begins to concentrate on, process, absorb,
and retain new and difficult information’’ (Dunn & Dunn’s
framework; International Learning Styles Network, 2008), (b)
the learner’s preferred modes of perception and processing
(Kolb’s, 1984, 1985, framework), or (c) ‘‘the fit between [peo-
ple’s] learning style and the kind of learning experience they
face’’ (Hay Group, n.d., p. 11). Note that the learning-styles
hypothesis, as defined here, could be true without the meshing
hypothesis being true—if, for example, individuals classified as
visual learners profited more from verbal instruction in some
situations or if individuals classified as verbal learners profited
more from visual instruction. In our review, we searched for
evidence for both this broad version of the learning-styles hy-
pothesis and the more specific meshing hypothesis.
Interactions as the Key Test of the Learning-Styles
Hypothesis
To provide evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis—whe-
ther it incorporates the meshing hypothesis or not—a study must
satisfy several criteria. First, on the basis of some measure or
measures of learning style, learners must be divided into two or
more groups (e.g., putative visual learners and auditory learn-
ers). Second, subjects within each learning-style group must be
randomly assigned to one of at least two different learning
methods (e.g., visual versus auditory presentation of some ma-
terial). Third, all subjects must be given the same test of
achievement (if the tests are different, no support can be pro-
vided for the learning-styles hypothesis). Fourth, the results
need to show that the learning method that optimizes test per-
formance of one learning-style group is different than the
learning method that optimizes the test performance of a second
learning-style group.
Thus, the learning-styles hypothesis (and particular instruc-
tional interventions based on learning styles) receives support if
and only if an experiment reveals what is commonly known as a
crossover interaction between learning style and method when
learning style is plotted on the horizontal axis. Three such
findings are illustrated in Figures 1A to 1C. For each of these
types of findings, the method that proves more effective for
Group A is not the same as the method that proves more effective
for Group B. One important thing to notice about such a cross-
over interaction is that it can be obtained even if every subject
within one learning-style group outscores every subject within
the other learning-style group (see Fig. 1B). Thus, it is possible
to obtain strong evidence for the utility of learning-style as-
sessments even if learning style is correlated with what might,
for some purposes, be described as ability differences. More-
over, the necessary crossover interaction allows for the possi-
bility that both learning-style groups could do equally well with
one of the learning methods (see Fig. 1C).
Figures 1D to 1I show some hypothetical interactions that
would not provide support for the learning-styles hypothesis
because, in each case, the same learning method provides
optimal learning for every learner. Note that these findings are
insufficient even though it is assumed that every interaction in
Figure 1 is statistically significant. It is interesting to note that
the data shown in Figures 1D and 1G do produce a crossover
interaction when the data are plotted so that the horizontal axis
represents learning method, as shown in Figure 2, but this mere
rearrangement of the data does not alter the fact that the same
learning method maximizes performance of all subjects.
1
Thus,
as noted earlier, a style-by-method crossover interaction con-
stitutes sufficient evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis if
and only if the horizontal axis represents learning style, as in
Figures 1A to 1C.
To provide the most liberal criterion in our search for evidence
supporting the learning-styles hypothesis, we cast the hypoth-
esis so that it requires only the style-by-method crossover in-
teraction described previously. It does not require that the
optimal method for each group would somehow match or con-
form to each group’s learning style (the meshing hypothesis re-
ferred to earlier).
Primary Mental Abilities: Relation to Learning Styles
In our discussion of styles thus far, we have focused on prefer-
ences for how information would be presented to a person rather
than on the notion of the person having different ability to pro-
cess one kind of information or another. This focus is in con-
formity with the dictionary definition of style and matches at
least the most typical usage of the term learning style within the
education field. However, the notion of learning style as a set of
preferences and the notion of learning style as a specific aptitude
are very closely intertwined in many discussions of learning
styles. Moreover, it is our impression that among the general
public, the notion of learning styles and the notion of differential
abilities are scarcely distinguished at all. There is, after all, a
commonsense reason why the two concepts could be conflated:
Namely, different modes of instruction might be optimal for
different people because different modes of presentation exploit
the specific perceptual and cognitive strengths of different in-
dividuals, as suggested by the meshing hypothesis.
Similar to the learning-styles hypothesis, the idea of specific
abilities also implies a special form of crossover interaction.
However, the interaction is different in kind from what was
outlined earlier as the key test of the learning-styles hypothesis.
1
A reviewer of an earlier version of this article noted that the interactions
shown in Figures 1H and 1I might have potential practical importance, even in
the absence of a true crossover. If one could sort people into two groups, one of
which would benefit from an instructional manipulation and the other of which
was completely unaffected by it, it might (on some assumptions) be worthwhile
doing the sorting and selectively offering the manipulation. We agree. However,
as we show later, the general conclusions reached here do not depend on this
issue because we have not found any actual interactions of the types in Figures
1H and 1I in the learning-styles literature.
Volume 9—Number 3 109
H. Pashler et al.
If the notion of specific aptitudes or skills is valid, one ought to
be able to divide subjects into two or more groups (e.g., Group A
of learners with high auditory ability and Group B of learners
with high visual ability). There should then be two tests such that
Group A outscores Group B on one test, whereas Group B out-
scores Group A on the other test.
There is little doubt that specific-ability differences of this
kind exist. The first psychologist to provide strong empirical
evidence for the idea of specific-ability differences was Louis
Thurstone (e.g., Thurstone, 1938). Thurstone proposed seven
‘‘primary mental abilities’’: verbal comprehension,word fluency,
number facility,spatial visualization,associative memory,
A
Test
Score
Method 2
Method 1
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
B
Method 2
Method 1
C
D
Test
Score
Method 1
Method 2
E
Method 1
Method 2
F
Method 1
Method 2
G
Test
Score
Method 1
Method 2
H
Method 1
Method 2
I
Method 1
Method 2
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
Method 2
Method 1
Unacceptable Evidence
In examples D through I, the same learning method optimized the mean test score
of both kinds of learners, thereby precluding the need to customize instruction.
Acceptable Evidence
In examples A, B, and C, the learning method that optimized the
mean test score of one kind of learner is different from the learning method that optimized
the mean test score of the other kind of learner.
Fig. 1. Acceptable and unacceptable evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis. In each of the hypothetical experiments, subjects have been first
classified as having Learning Style A or B and then randomly assigned to Learning Method 1 or 2. Later, all subjects have taken the same test. The
learning-styles hypothesis is supported if and only if the learning method that optimized the mean test score of one group is different from the learning
method that optimized the mean test score of the other group, as in A, B, and C. By contrast, if the same learning methodoptimized the mean test score of
both groups, as in D through I, the result does not provide evidence. (Note that all nine interactions are assumed to be statistically significant.) In general,
the learning-styles hypothesis is supported if and only if a study finds a crossover interaction between learning method and learning style, assuming that
the horizontal axis represents the learning-style variable. See the text for more details.
110 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
perceptual speed, and reasoning. Although these abilities are not
completely uncorrelated (implying, to some, the idea of general
mental ability or ‘‘g’’; see Jensen, 1998; Spearman, 1927), they
do show a moderate degree of independence (Thurstone, 1938).
Although this provides evidence for specific aptitudes, it does
not show that one needs to provide different groups with different
forms of instruction to maximize their performance on any single
outcome test. Thus, evidence for specific aptitudes does not, by
itself, validate the learning-styles hypothesis.
There are few data on the relationship between preferences
and specific aptitudes. However, one recent and well-executed
study, which we discuss at more length later, discloses that
preference for visual versus verbal information intake shows
hardly any relationship to an individual’s objectively measured
specific-aptitude profile (Massa & Mayer, 2006). Thus, the
common assumption that preferences and abilities are closely
tied is open to challenge. But as we have defined the learning-
styles hypothesis, one could find evidence for the hypothesis
regardless of whether the style measure involved a specific ap-
titude, a preference, or both.
EVALUATION OF LEARNING-STYLES LITERATURE
Style-by-Treatment Interactions: The Core Evidence
Is Missing
For the reasons described earlier, it is our judgment that a val-
idation of an intervention based on learning styles would need to
offer one kind of evidence, and one kind of evidence alone: a
crossover interaction of the form illustrated in Figures 1A to 1C.
On the basis of this analysis, we scoured the literature to identify
studies that provided such evidence. Remarkably, despite the
vast size of the literature on learning styles and classroom
instruction, we found only one study that could be described
as even potentially meeting the criteria described earlier,
2
and
as we report in the following text, even that study provided less
than compelling evidence.
The study in question was reported by Sternberg, Grigorenko,
Ferrari, and Clinkenbeard (1999). In this study, 324 ‘‘gifted and
talented’’ high school students were given the Sternberg Triar-
chic Abilities Test, which provided a rating of each student’s
analytical, creative, and practical ability. On the basis of this
test, the authors selected a subset of 112 subjects (35%) for
whom one of these three abilities was much higher than the other
two, and depending on their area of strength, these subjects were
assigned to the high-analytical, high-creative, or high-practical
groups. (Another 87 students were assigned to two additional
groups not described here, and the remaining 125 students were
excluded from the study.) The participating subjects enrolled in
an introductory psychology summer course at Yale University,
and each student was randomly assigned to class meetings that
emphasized analytical instruction, creative instruction, practi-
A
Test
Score
Method 1
Method 2
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
A Style
Learners
B Style
Learners
80
20
60
40
B
Test
Score
Method 1
Method 2
60
80
20
Test
Score
Method 1 Method 2
Method 1 Method 2
A Style Learners
B Style Learners
40
20
80
60
Test
Score
60
20
80
60 A Style Learners
B Style Learners
Fig. 2. Examples of crossover interactions that would not validate the learning-styles hypothesis. The two hypothetical
outcomes in A are identical to the outcomes in B, and these examples demonstrate that the choice of variable for the hor-
izontal axis can affect whether an interaction appears to ‘‘cross over.’’ Regardless of appearance, though, each of the
graphs above demonstrates that the same learning method (Method 1) proved superior for all subjects. Thus, the data above
do not provide evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis. However, if the horizontal axis depicts the learning-style
variable, a crossover interaction is both sufficient and necessary to show evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis, as in
Figures 1A–1C. Note that the above two results are identical to those in Figures 1D and 1G.
2
We also encountered one study in the domain of user information technology
training that appears to offer one interaction of the form discussed here (see
Bostrom, Olfman, & Sein, 1990).
Volume 9—Number 3 111
H. Pashler et al.
cal instruction, or memory instruction (a control condition).
Their course performance was assessed by raters, and the ratings
were ‘‘subjected to principal-component analyses’’ (Sternberg
et al., 1999, p. 7). The authors reported several analyses, and,
for the analysis of the interaction of interest, they compared
the course performance of matched subjects (i.e., students who
received instruction that matched their strongest ability) to
mismatched subjects. The article states that after the data were
‘‘screened for deviant scores’’ (Sternberg et al., 1999, p. 10),
matched subjects reliably outscored mismatched subjects on
two of the three kinds of assessments.
Thus, the authors reported a style-by-treatment interaction.
Although suggestive of an interaction of the type we have been
looking for, the study has peculiar features that make us view it as
providing only tenuous evidence. For one thing, the reported
interaction was found only with highly derived measures (as
noted above), and the untransformed outcome measures (e.g., the
mean score on each final assessment) were not reported for the
different conditions. Furthermore, and as noted previously, only
about one third of the subjects were classified into the groups that
produced the interaction. Finally, the interaction was achieved
only after the outliers were excluded for unspecified reasons. In
brief, although the article presents data that may be worth fol-
lowing up, it has serious methodological issues. Even for those
who might disagree with this judgment,the potential support that
this study could provide for any of the particular interventions
based on learning styles that are being marketed at the present
time is extremely limited because the instructional manipulation
does not seem to correspond to any of the more widely promoted
and used learning-styles interventions.
In summary, our efforts revealed at most one arguable piece of
evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis in general. For the
many specific assessment devices and interventions being ac-
tively marketed to teachers, as described earlier in this article,
we were unable to find any evidence that would meet the key
criteria discussed earlier (i.e., interactions of the form shown in
Figs. 1A–1C). Moreover, we found a number of published
studies that used what we have described as the appropriate
research design for testing the learning-styles hypothesis and
found results that contradict widely held versions of the learn-
ing-styles hypothesis; we turn to these studies now.
Learning-Styles Studies With Appropriate Methods and
Negative Results
Massa and Mayer (2006) reported a particularly informative and
well-designed study of learning styles with a set of three ex-
periments. They constructed a reasonably realistic computer-
based electronics lesson. Two different sorts of help screens
were customized for verbal or visual learners, providing either
supplementary printed text or carefully developed diagrams and
illustrations, respectively. A wide variety of preference-based
and ability-based individual-difference measures were admin-
istered to sort visual from verbal learners in various ways. In
general, the results, which the researchers replicated, showed
no tendency for better performance for those who received help
screens matched to their preferences. Critically, Massa and
Mayer found no support for any of these interactions despite
exhaustive analysis of nearly 20 individual-difference measures
that spanned their three proposed facets of verbalizer–visualizer
learning styles. The authors concluded that their results pro-
vided no support for ‘‘the idea that different instructional
methods should be used for visualizers and verbalizers’’ (Massa
& Mayer, 2006, pp. 333–334).
Within a medical-education context, a recent study by Cook,
Thompson, Thomas, and Thomas (2009) examined the hypothesis
that learners with a ‘‘sensing learning style’’ would do better when
given instruction in which the problem was presented prior to the
content information used to solve the problem, whereas ‘‘intuitive
learners’’ would do better with the reverse. The authors noted that
this learning-styles taxonomy is similar to Kolb’s (1984, 1985)
concrete–abstract dimension. Studying a sample of 123 internal
medicine residents and presenting modules on four ambulatory
medicine topics, they found no support for this prediction.
Another study reaching a similar conclusion, albeit using
tasks with less direct correspondence to real educational ac-
tivities, was reported by Constantinidou and Baker (2002).
These investigators used a laboratory task to ask whether self-
reported preferences in information uptake predicted ability to
perceive and store information in different modalities. They
examined the relationship between adults’ scores on the Visu-
alizer–Verbalizer Questionnaire (VVQ; Richardson, 1977)
to their verbal free-recall performance on a task that presented
words through the auditory modality, the visual modality (as
line drawings of the corresponding object), or both. The VVQ
asks people a series of questions about their relative preference
for taking in information through verbal versus visual means.
VVQ scores were not related in any strong or clearly interpret-
able way to relative levels of free-recall performance for
different input modalities. Visual presentations produced better
free recall than did purely verbal presentations, and the authors
reported finding ‘‘no relationship between a visual learning
style and the actual learning of verbal items that are
presented visually or auditorily’’ (Constantinidou & Baker,
2002, p. 306).
These studies, which we believe are methodologically strong,
provide no support for the learning-styles hypothesis (or its
popular specific version, the meshing hypothesis). As mentioned
previously, however, it would clearly be a mistake to label these
negative results as a conclusive refutation of the learning-styles
hypothesis in general. Further research modeled on the work of
Massa and Mayer (2006) may bring to light assessments paired
with interventions that do meet our criteria. But at present, these
negative results, in conjunction with the virtual absence of
positive findings, lead us to conclude that any application of
learning styles in classrooms is unwarranted.
112 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
RELATED LITERATURES WITH APPROPRIATE
METHODOLOGIES
Aptitude-by-Treatment Interactions
Although the literature on learning styles per se has paid scarce
attention to the need for group-by-treatment interactions, there
has been a clear recognition of the importance of such interac-
tions within an older educational psychology literature, going
back to Cronbach’s (1957) appeal for research to uncover in-
teractions between aptitude and aspects of the instructional
context (termed treatments). Although the validity of aptitude-
by-treatment interactions (ATIs) is a separate issue from the
validity of learning-style measures, which is the primary focus of
the current article, we describe several ATIs so that the reader
may gain an appreciation of a literature that recognizes the need
to demonstrate the necessary interaction.
Initial attempts to demonstrate so-called ATIs were reviewed
in a classic work by Cronbach and Snow (1977). According to
Cronbach and Snow, these attempts were not highly successful
because treatment durations were too brief, and aspects of the
methodologies were inadequate. After that review, significant
improvements were made in methodologies, with a number of
studies examining treatments implemented in classroom set-
tings for relatively long durations.
The kind of potential interaction that has received the most
attention within the ATI tradition involves the degree to which
the teaching approach provides ample structure or guidance for
the learner. The primary hypothesis that has stimulated much of
the work in this area is the idea that students with high ability
tend to fare better in less structured learning environments than
in highly structured learning environments. By contrast, stu-
dents with low ability are hypothesized to fare better with in-
struction that is highly structured and provides explicit
guidance than with instruction that is less structured and pro-
vides little guidance (see, e.g., Snow, 1977). A variant of this
theme that also sparked interest is the idea that highly struc-
tured situations might reduce performance differences between
students with high and low abilities (Freebody & Tirre, 1985).
As detailed in the next paragraph, two key difficulties in eval-
uating this hypothesis are as follows: (a) The implementation of
instructional methods that differ in structure (guidance) has
been quite variable, and (b) the measures used to assess student
abilities have varied considerably.
Freebody and Tirre (1985) reported an ATI in line with the
above hypothesis that involved two competing reading-in-
struction approaches. One approach, the Matteson program (see
Schlenker, 1978), provides a list of behavioral objectives in
major reading-skill areas (e.g., word recognition, vocabulary
development, literal and interpretative comprehension) com-
bined with individualized learning packages that cover these
areas, following precisely defined sequences. The other ap-
proach, the Scott Foresman (1972) program, is not strictly se-
quenced and monitored. Instead, the emphasis is on frequent
discussions focusing on the literal and inferential aspects of
discourse. This approach is assumed to place a greater burden
on the student for acquiring specific reading skills (see Freebody
& Tirre, 1985).
All of the sixth-grade students in a large school district who had
been in one of the two reading programs for 2 years or longer
served as subjects (N5180, nearly equally distributed across
reading programs). Their aptitudes were assessed with a stan-
dardized test that included nonverbal and verbal measures of
ability. The outcome measure was the reading test score achieved
at the conclusion of the sixth-grade year. Multiple regression
analyses produced a significant ATI. The interpretation of the
interaction was based on predicted outcomes (from the regression
equations) for particular low-ability values and particular high-
ability values. These predicted outcomes indeed showed that
students with low ability would generally perform better on the
structured reading program (Matteson) than on the less structured
reading program (Scott Foresman). The reverse would be pre-
dicted for the students with high ability: better performance on
the less structured than on the more structured reading instruc-
tion method. Although suggestive, these data do not establish that
students at a particular ability level (either low or high) fared
significantly better (in terms of reading outcomes) as a function of
the reading program in which the students were enrolled.
Additional direct support for the idea that learning outcomes
for students with high and low abilities might reverse with a
greater degree of structure embedded in instruction was re-
ported in the domain of elementary school mathematics (Cramer,
Post, & Behr, 1989). Fourth graders being taught fractions were
given four lessons (in six 40-minute class periods) on completing
rational numbers tasks that involved shading a particular frac-
tional area (two thirds) of different kinds of visual figures (e.g., a
rectangle divided into three columns). In the high-structured
condition, instruction was teacher centered with little student
choice. The teacher paced through each example in large-group
lecture fashion. In the low-structured condition, the teacher
provided an initial introduction to the problems and then stu-
dents worked through examples at their own pace. The materials
involved leading questions to guide the learner to discovery of
the key concepts. Both instructional conditions used identical
examples, and both contained a 10-minute practice phase that
completed each 40-minute class period. Students in the higher
and lower ranges of cognitive restructuring ability, as measured
by the Group Embedded Figures test (see Witkin & Good-
enough, 1981), were assigned to each instructional condition. At
the conclusion of the lessons, the students completed a final test
containing problems (rational numbers tasks) of the type taught
in the lessons. For the more difficult problems—those requiring
physical restructuring of the diagrams—a crossover interaction
between ability and the degree of instructional structure
emerged. The students with high ability performed better
following low- than high-structured instruction; by contrast,
students with low ability performed better following high- than
Volume 9—Number 3 113
H. Pashler et al.
low-structured instruction. Particularly notable is that the
students with low ability outscored the students with high ability
(at least nominally) after both received the more highly struc-
tured instruction. This pattern thus provides evidence that
learning is optimized when students with low ability are pro-
vided with structured instruction and students with high ability
are provided with less structured instruction.
However, other studies that examined different content do-
mains and used different assessment instruments did not always
support the idea that high-ability students are better off with less
structured instruction, whereas low-ability students profit more
from higher-structured instruction. In Janicki and Peterson
(1981), 117 grade school students completed a 2-week fractions
unit in a ‘‘direct’’ instructional fashion (which involved homework
assignments that students completed in class on their own) or in a
less structured fashion (this involved mixed-ability four-student
group seatwork with choice of homework or math games). Apti-
tude, as determined by a composite measure that included Ravens
Progressive Matrices, did not interact with instructional method.
Greene (1980) similarly failed to find an interaction when fifth
and sixth graders with high and low ability (as determined by
Lorge-Thorndike verbal and nonverbal tests) were given high-
structured instruction (specified sequence of workbook assign-
ments and performance standards) or low-structured instruction
(choice and pacing of which exercises to do in the workbook) on
a letter-series task. The letter-series task was chosen to reflect
general problem-solving goals in education. The basic result
was that the students with higher ability performed better than
the students with lower ability regardless of instruction.
In a well-conducted experiment, Peterson, Janicki, and Swing
(1980, Study 2) manipulated instruction for a 2-week ninth-grade
social studies unit across six classes (146 students). Two teachers
taught each of three classes with one of three teaching methods.
One teaching method was a standard lecture-recitation ap-
proach. In the second method, termed inquiry, students re-
searched a historical question using primary sources. The third
method, public issues discussion, required students to support a
position on a current public issue using primary material. Ap-
titude was defined as verbal ability. The outcome measure was a
test that included multiple-choice questions on historical facts
and short essay questions requiring integration and evaluation of
material. Critically, the test targeted readings and content com-
mon to all three instructional approaches. In line with the pre-
vious findings, there was no interaction between teaching method
and ability for the essay performances, with students with higher
ability performing better on the essay questions in general.
It is interesting to note that for the multiple-choice questions,
there was a significant ATI such that students with high ability
performed better with the lecture-recitation teaching method
than with the inquiry or public issues discussion methods,
whereas students with low ability performed better when re-
ceiving the inquiry or public issues methods than with the lec-
ture-recitation method. This pattern would appear to counter the
main hypothesis being considered in reviewing this body of ATI
work, because the inquiry and public discussion methods
encouraged learner self-direction (less structure). However,
Peterson et al. (1980) offered an interpretation based on the
underlying cognitive demands placed on the students by
the different instructional methods. They suggested that the
lecture-recitation approach implemented in the study placed a
heavier burden on students’ cognitive skills than did the other
approaches. Specifically, students had to comprehend and
attend to the lectures, take careful notes, and memorize target
information. The idea is that students with high ability would
have the requisite skills to accomplish these challenges. Of
course, this interpretation does not clarify why the students with
high ability would fare less well with the other instructional
methods, relative to the lecture-recitation method.
One study activity that appears to be sensitive to individual
ability differences is concept mapping (creation of diagrams that
show the relationship among concepts), with students with low
verbal ability profiting more from concept maps (in a chemistry
learning activity) than students with high verbal ability
(Stensvold & Wilson, 1990). Not surprisingly, in most studies the
students with higher ability outperformed the students with
lower ability in both instructional conditions.
However, complete crossovers have recently been reported
with embedded-question techniques for learning from textbook
chapters. In Callender and McDaniel (2007), the ability of in-
terest was the degree to which learners can construct a coherent
representation of presented content (either through text or lec-
tures). Poor structure builders are assumed to perform relatively
poorly at constructing a coherent representation of connected
discourse that is either read or spoken (Gernsbacher, 1990).
Such comprehenders appear to construct too many substructures
to accommodate incoming information, rather than constructing
a unified integrated representation of the target material. By
contrast, good structure builders are able to extract coherent,
well-organized mental representation of the text. Accordingly,
Callender and McDaniel reasoned that embedding questions
into a textbook chapter would orient poor structure builders to
anchoring information around which to build a coherent repre-
sentation and therefore improve learning for students at this level
of comprehension ability. Embedded questions might be super-
fluous for good structure builders, however, because they are
already able to construct coherent representations.
To test these predictions, Callender and McDaniel (2007) had
college-age subjects read a chapter from an introductory psy-
chology textbook with or without embedded questions. After-
ward, the subjects were given a multiple-choice test consisting
of questions targeting the information featured by the embedded
questions and questions on information not targeted by the
embedded questions. For poor structure builders, embedded
questions significantly improved performance on target ques-
tions (relative to reading without embedded questions) but not
performance on nontarget questions. Good structure builders
114 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
did not profit from embedded questions, and indeed their per-
formance for nontarget information was better without embed-
ded questions. Note that these patterns could be considered
evidence for the general notion that more guided study activities
are preferable for comprehenders of lower ability, whereas less
guided presentations (no embedded questions) are preferred for
comprehenders of higher ability. These patterns clearly require
replication, as only one chapter was considered and the subjects
were in a laboratory experiment and not an actual course. Yet,
this finding illustrates the potential fruitfulness of attempting to
link more specific cognitive processing abilities to instructional
techniques designed to dovetail with those abilities.
In summary, ATIs evidently do occur, but it has not been easy
to determine exactly when they occur. This diversity of outcomes
is perhaps not surprising given that available studies vary on a
number of potentially critical dimensions, including target
content, particular implementations of variations in instruc-
tional structure, assessments used to index ability, and the kinds
of criterial (outcome) tests used. In some studies, the ATIs can
be reported for one type of criterial measure but not another
(e.g., see Cramer et al., 1989; Peterson, 1979; Peterson et al.,
1980). At best, then, the ATI literature provides a mixed picture.
A few studies are consistent with the idea that structured in-
struction produces better learning outcomes for students of
lower ability (relative to less structured instruction), whereas
less structured instruction produces better learning outcomes
for students with higher abilities (relative to structured in-
struction). But other studies either did not obtain significant
ATIs involving general ability and the degree of structure in
instruction or in some cases indicated that students with lower
ability fared worse with structured instruction than with less
structured instruction. The greater coherence of the literature
assessing structure building suggests that a more fine-grained
approach that focuses on individual differences in underlying
cognitive processes, rather than general aptitudes, and imple-
ments instructional methods that target those processes may be
more fruitful in producing robust interactions between learner
ability and learner-directed activities.
Personality-by-Treatment Interactions
There are also some more fragmentary but methodologically
sophisticated studies documenting personality-by-instructional
treatment effects, though these findings, like the aptitude–
treatment interactions described just above, do not speak to the
validity of the learning-styles hypothesis. Several studies have
looked at a personality measure called locus of control, which
refers to an individual’s belief about whether his or her suc-
cesses or failures are a consequence of internal or external
factors (Rotter, 1966). An internal locus of control indicates a
belief that outcomes are a consequence of one’s own actions. An
external locus of control reflects the belief that outcomes are
unrelated to one’s own actions. One hypothesis that has received
consideration is that learners with an internal locus of control
may fare better with less structured than with highly structured
instruction, whereas learners with an external locus of control
will achieve more with highly structured than with less struc-
tured instruction.
Several studies have examined this hypothesis in college
mathematics classes for prospective elementary school teachers.
Horak and Horak (1982) examined two instructional methods
during a 2-week unit on transformational geometry, with each
method randomly assigned to a particular class section (total
number of students was 102). In the highly guided instruction
(‘‘deductive’’), students were given rules or principles and then
proceeded to apply the rules to examples. In the less guided
instruction (‘‘inductive’’), students were given examples, with no
rule or principle stated for the students or expected from them.
The criterial test included questions designed to test lower
levels of understanding (knowledge of terminology and repro-
duction of material presented) and higher levels of under-
standing (e.g., problem solving). Marginally significant support
for the predicted interaction was found for the questions testing
lower levels of understanding: Students with an external locus of
control performed better after the highly guided instruction than
after the less guided instruction. The reverse was observed for
students with an internal locus of control, with performance after
less guided instruction exceeding performance after highly
guided instruction (this also occurred with the questions tapping
higher levels of understanding).
Parallel findings of marginal magnitude were reported in
similar mathematics classes for elementary school teachers with
shorter treatment periods (McLeod & Adams, 1980/1981).
Three experiments were conducted using somewhat different
instantiations of amount of guidance given during instruction
and somewhat different target content. In only one experiment
was the interaction significant (although a second experiment
showed the same pattern): In this experiment, all students spent
1 week learning about networks with an inductive set of mate-
rials (see earlier). The amount of guidance was manipulated by
having students work individually on problems and encouraging
help from the instructor (high guidance, here students asked
may questions) or by having students work in groups of 4 (low
guidance, very few questions were posed to the instructor). On
an immediate but not a delayed (given several weeks after in-
struction) criterial test, students with an internal locus of control
performed better with low guidance than with high guidance; the
reverse was found for the students with an external locus of
control. The absence of significant interactions in the other two
experiments may have been a consequence of shorter treatments
(75-min lesson in one experiment) or small sample size (just
under 60 students in each experiment), as the authors suggested.
It is interesting to note that Janicki and Peterson’s (1981)
study that failed to find an interaction with general ability (re-
viewed in the preceding section) did observe a significant per-
sonality-by-treatment interaction with a composite factor of
Volume 9—Number 3 115
H. Pashler et al.
locus of control and attitudes toward math (in teaching fractions
to grade-school students). This composite factor of account-
ability for learning interacted with instructional method such
that those students with higher accountability (more internal
locus of control; 36% of the students) performed better on im-
mediate and delayed computation and story-problem tests when
in the less guided small group setting than when in the highly
guided direct-instruction setting. Instructional setting did not
produce differences for the students with lower accountability
(external locus of control).
In summary, there is modest evidence for the idea that stu-
dents with an internal locus of control benefit more from less
guided or structured instruction than from more guided in-
struction, whereas students with an external locus of control
might benefit more from guided (structured) instruction than
from less guided (structured) instruction. Previous studies re-
inforce those reviewed herein with similar patterns (Daniels &
Stevens, 1976; Horak & Slobodzian, 1980; Parent, Forward,
Cantor, & Mohling, 1975; Yeany, Dost, & Mattews, 1980). The
reliability and generalizability of these findings to other content
areas and to longer instructional treatments remain to be dem-
onstrated. A clear uncertainty is specifying the exact aspects of
instruction (group vs. individual work; density of questions di-
rected at the instructor; homework choice vs. no choice) that are
interacting with locus of control.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Our evaluation of the learning-styles concept led us to identify
the form of evidence needed to validate the use of learning-style
assessments in instructional settings (i.e., Figures 1A–1C). As
described earlier, our search of the learning-styles literature has
revealed only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of
evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that
the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying
learning-style assessments in school settings. Moreover, several
studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence
that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis (Massa &
Mayer, 2006; Constantinidou & Baker, 2002). Finally, even if a
study of a particular learning-style classification and its corre-
sponding instructional methods was to reveal the necessary
evidence, such a finding would provide support for that partic-
ular learning-style classification only—and only then if its
benefits surpass the high costs of student assessments and tai-
lored instruction.
Our conclusions have particularly clear-cut implications for
educational researchers, in our opinion. We urge investigators
examining learning-styles concepts to embrace the factorial
randomized research designs described in the earlier ‘‘Inter-
actions as the Key Test of the Learning-Styles Hypothesis’’
section, because these alone have the potential to provide ac-
tion-relevant conclusions. The kind of research that is needed
must begin by classifying learners into categories based on
clearly specified measures and then randomize learners to re-
ceive one of several different instructional treatments. Equally
crucial, the interventions must be followed by a common pre-
specified learning assessment given to all the participants in the
study. The paucity of studies using this methodology is the main
factor that renders the learning-styles literature so weak and
unconvincing, despite its large size.
Points of Clarification
Although we have argued that the extant data do not provide
support for the learning-styles hypothesis, it should be empha-
sized that we do not claim that the same kind of instruction is
most useful in all contexts and with all learners. An obvious
point is that the optimal instructional method is likely to vary
across disciplines. For instance, the optimal curriculum for a
writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis,
whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching
geometry obviously requires visual–spatial materials. Of course,
identifying the optimal approach for each discipline is an em-
pirical question, and we espouse research using strong research
methods to identify the optimal approach for each kind of sub-
ject matter.
Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case that a particular
student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of
course content presented in one way versus another. One sus-
pects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles
partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student
may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless
for another student. There is, however, a great gap from such
heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations—
whose reality we do not dispute—to the notion that presently
available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in
deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Per-
haps future research may demonstrate such linkages, but at
present, we find no evidence for it.
Costs and Benefits of Educational Interventions
It should also be noted that even if the evidence had convinc-
ingly documented style-by-method interactions—which we
have concluded is scarcely the case—the interactions would
need to be large and robust, and not just statistically significant,
before the concomitant educational interventions could be
recommended as cost-effective. After all, there is no doubt that
interventions built around learning styles will be costly. Stu-
dents must be assessed and grouped by learning style and then
given some sort of customized instruction, which, in turn, re-
quires additional teacher training as well as the creation and
validation of instructional activities for each learning style.
Moreover, if one is to partition the children within a given
classroom and teach each subset differently, this may require
increasing the number of teachers. Ultimately, the practical
question will be whether the benefits of learning-styles inter-
116 Volume 9—Number 3
Learning Styles
ventions exceed other ways of using the time and money needed
to incorporate these interventions.
Beliefs Versus Evidence as a Foundation for Educational
Practices and Policies
Basic research on human learning and memory, especially re-
search on human metacognition, much of it carried out in the last
20 years or so, has demonstrated that our intuitions and beliefs
about how we learn are often wrong in serious ways. We do not,
apparently, gain an understanding of the complexities of human
learning and memory from the trials and errors of everyday living
and learning. Many demonstrations have shown that partici-
pants who are asked to predict their own future performance
following conditions of instruction that researchers know to be
ineffective will often predict better performance under poorer
conditions of instruction than will participants provided with
better conditions of instruction (for a review, see Schmidt &
Bjork, 1992). Part of the problem is that conditions that make
performance improve rapidly during instruction or training,
such as blocking or temporal massing of practice, can fail to
support long-term retention and transfer, whereas conditions
that introduce difficulties for learners and appear to slow the
learning process, such as interleaving different types of prob-
lems, or employing temporal spacing of practice on what is to be
learned, often enhance long-term retention and transfer. As
learners, we can also be fooled by subjective impressions, such
as the ease or sense of familiarity we gain on reading expository
text or how readily some information comes to mind, both of
which can be products of factors unrelated to actual compre-
hension or understanding.
There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how
they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead
people to manage their own learning and teach others in non-
optimal ways. This fact makes it clear that research—not intu-
ition or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for
upgrading teaching and learning. If education is to be trans-
formed into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to
identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but
also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made
by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support. On
the basis of our review, the belief that learning-style assessments
are useful in educational contexts appears to be just that—a
belief. Our conclusion reinforces other recent skeptical com-
mentary on the topic (e.g., Coffield et al., 2004; Curry, 1990;
Willingham, 2005, 2009). Future research may develop learn-
ing-style measures and targeted interventions that can be shown
to work in combination, with the measures sorting individuals
into groups for which genuine group-by-treatment interactions
can be demonstrated. At present, however, such validation is
lacking, and therefore, we feel that the widespread use of
learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a
wasteful use of limited resources.
Everybody’s Potential to Learn
As a final comment, we feel the need to emphasize that all hu-
mans, short of being afflicted with certain types of organic
damage, are born with an astounding capacity to learn, both in
the amount that can be learned in one domain and in the variety
and range of what can be learned. Children, unless stifled in
some way, are usually virtuosos as learners.
As we asserted earlier, it is undeniable that the instruction
that is optimal for a given student will often need to be guided by
the aptitude, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions that
student brings to a learning task. However, assuming that people
are enormously heterogeneous in their instructional needs may
draw attention away from the body of basic and applied research
on learning that provides a foundation of principles and prac-
tices that can upgrade everybody’s learning. For example, the
finding that learners’ memory for information or procedures can
be directly enhanced through testing (Roediger & Karpicke,
2006) is not something that applies to only a small subset of
learners but (as far as can be told) applies to all. Although
performance of a student on a test will typically depend on that
student’s existing knowledge, testing (when carried out appro-
priately, which sometimes requires providing feedback) appears
to enhance learning at every level of prior knowledge.
Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially
important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open for
our students, our children, and ourselves. Toward that end, we
think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing
the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance
everybody’s learning.
SUMMARY
Our review of the learning-styles literature led us to define a
particular type of evidence that we see as a minimum precon-
dition for validating the use of a learning-style assessment in an
instructional setting. As described earlier, we have been unable
to find any evidence that clearly meets this standard. Moreover,
several studies that used the appropriate type of research design
found results that contradict the most widely held version of the
learning-styles hypothesis, namely, what we have referred to as
the meshing hypothesis (Constantinidou & Baker, 2002; Massa
& Mayer, 2006). The contrast between the enormous popularity
of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of
credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and
disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has
practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.
Acknowledgments—We are grateful to Maxwell Moholy for
assistance with the literature review. We also thank Elena L.
Grigorenko, Roddy Roediger, and two anonymous reviewers for
their comments on an earlier version of this article.
Volume 9—Number 3 117
H. Pashler et al.
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